In a notable victory for the #MeToo movement, President Biden recently signed the “Speak Out Act” into law. It became effective December 7, 2022.

This bipartisan legislation targets and effectively prohibits the use of pre-dispute nondisclosure agreements, which would cover claims of sexual harassment or assault in the workplace. The law only prohibits enforcement of pre-dispute agreements, which means employers can still utilize NDAs in post-dispute agreements, such as settlements.

Many states, like New York, have already passed laws restricting the use of NDA’s in settlement agreements, so depending on the state where you are located, this may not be a major change. But for employment attorneys and HR professionals, this should be a signal to review all new employment contracts. In a broader sense, you may have to revisit how your company responds to workplace sexual harassment and assault allegations now that it has become more difficult to quietly resolve.     

Here’s what you need to know:

What does the Speak Out Act do, exactly?

Under the Act:   

  • Any agreement to keep the details of any future sexual harassment or assault dispute confidential is unenforceable. This applies to all employment contracts: past, present, or future.
  • Any prospective nondisparagement clause that purports to limit an employee’s ability to speak out about sexual harassment or assault is also unenforceable.
  • Trade secrets and proprietary information are explicitly protected under the law and employers may use NDAs to safeguard this information.
  • States may continue to enforce laws that are more protective of an employee’s right to speak publicly about sexual assault and harassment.

Throughout the #MeToo era, NDAs have come under fire for preventing victims from speaking publicly but remain commonly used in hiring, promotion, and severance contracts. In fact, approximately one third of workers have signed broader agreements not to disparage their employers or disclose details of their employment.

Despite its seemingly clear purpose, the Act’s ambiguities are likely fodder for future court challenges. For instance, the law targets only “pre-dispute” agreements but does not define the term. This means courts may interpret a “dispute” to include a narrow set of actions (such as a formal complaint or even litigation) or broader swath (say an informal HR complaint).

Also, the law does not specify what a company must do to address existing employment agreements which may contain clauses that violate the new law.  We would advise leaving those agreements in place, as trying to get new agreements signed again could be impossible. Just be aware that a requirement of an NDA could be unenforceable.

The Act also looks to other federal, tribal, or state law in defining the terms “sexual assault” and “sexual harassment. ” Notably, in 2020, the Supreme Court interpreted Title VII’s sex protections to include protection against discrimination based sexual orientation and gender identity. The scope of these definitions may be contended.  And while the law does not prohibit the use of NDAs in other contexts, such racial bias or disability, discrimination claims are often intersectional and contain several allegations. For now, employers may be wise to interpret the Act broadly.

How does this compare to state law trends?

The federal law creates a floor, not a ceiling. More than a dozen states have already passed legislation limiting employee NDAs, including California and New York.  

California: California has severely limited NDA enforcement for all forms of workplace harassment and discrimination.  The state prohibits confidentiality agreements as a condition of employment that prevent an employee from disclosing most unlawful workplace conduct. And unlike the federal law, California’s law also bans confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements that prohibit an employee from discussing the underlying facts of the case. Agreements to protect the worker’s identity or safeguard the amount paid are permitted. Again, California law applies to all forms of harassment and discrimination, including sex, religion, color, national origin, disability, familial status, gender, age and others.

New York: The Empire State has similarly outlawed agreements that prevent the employee from disclosing the underlying facts and circumstances related to an employment discrimination claim. Like California, the legislation originally applied only to sex discrimination, but was expanded in subsequent iterations. New York lawmakers have also introduced legislation that would ban most NDA and nondisparagement clauses that prevent disclosure of harassment or discrimination in employment contracts.  

What should employers do now?

The Speak Out Act is hardly the first of its kind. Last March, Congress passed the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act, prohibiting enforcement of any pre-dispute arbitration agreement in these types of cases. With these trends in federal and state law, employers must take action:

  • Update your new employment contracts. While the law does not prohibit broad agreements full-stop, HR departments should review new agreements and ‘form’ agreements, to ensure they will withstand legal scrutiny. You do not need to change or try to get existing agreements signed anew.  Just be aware that a requirement of an NDA is likely not enforceable.  
  • Refresh your training materials and HR response policies. Ensure your company’s response is in compliance with federal and state laws. This includes training supervisors and updating company policies.
  • Consult counsel. Speak with an attorney if you have any questions about this new federal law or your obligations under state law.

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Continue Reading The Fall of the NDA: Compliance and Litigation Following the Speak Out Act

On Monday, August 10, the Fourth Circuit rejected the application of the “manager rule” in the Title VII context, finding it “would discourage . . . employees from voicing concerns about workplace discrimination.”

The so-called “manager rule” is a doctrine developed in federal anti-retaliation cases that finds that a manager’s disagreement with an employer’s actions,

Many of us spent summers working as interns, getting access to the industry of our choice, making contacts, learning – and yes running errands and filing and stuffing envelopes and doing other “grunt” work. Most young people value this experience, not for the money, but for the exposure, the contacts and the experience.

The world of internships has not been so rosy over the past several years, as the plaintiffs’ employment bar seized the gauntlet, and launched an avalanche of class actions accusing many employers of unlawfully failing to pay their interns.  Suddenly the young people who once seemed grateful for the experience, and who accepted internships at prestigious companies, suddenly decided that they should have been classified as “employees”  and looked for hefty payouts. Many of these cases have resulted in multi –million dollar settlements. At the forefront of this intern tsunami were two class actions which were both on appeal to the Second Circuit in New York – – Glatt et al. v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc., No. 13 – 4478 (2d Cir.) and Wang et al. v. The Hearst Corp., No. 13-4480 (2d Cir.).

In a holiday gift to employers, on July 2 the Second Circuit issued decisions in Glatt and Wang, refusing to certify the classes and finding that the interns were not employees under the law.  These decisions have dealt a significant blow to this budding industry of intern class actions, instead adopting a common sense test for whether interns should be treated as “employees,”  which many plaintiffs lawyers are likely bemoaning. Rejecting the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) rigid approach to defining an unpaid internship, the Court adopted the more “nuanced” “primary beneficiary” test , which focuses more on whether the intern is receiving some real educational benefit from the experience.  The decisions also provide employers with some valuable guidance as to how they can design and maintain a legal unpaid internship program.

The good news is these decisions should slow the juggernaut of class actions.  The better news is they give employers some real practical guidance as to how they can design an internship program, without a fear that the intern today will become the plaintiff of tomorrow.   We think the best news is for the interns – as now young people who truly crave the experience of an internship are not looking at a future where companies who cannot afford to pay simply throw up their hands and decide that they will not bother to sponsor such programs.  So, putting aside the plaintiffs’ lawyers, there are winners on all sides as the result of these decisions.

Background

The Glatt and Wang cases both arose out of the same basic set of facts, interns who claimed they toiled for many hours over weeks and/or months, and were never paid.  In each instance, the claim was that claims on behalf of all interns for the two companies should be certified as class actions. Interestingly, the two judges at the district court had each reached the opposite conclusions on the claims. First, in May 2013, Judge Harold Baer denied the plaintiff’s motion to certify a class of unpaid interns in the Wang case.  Wang v. Hearst Corp., No. 12 CV 793 (HB) (S.D.N.Y. May 8, 2013).  A month later, in June 2013, District Judge William Pauley in the Glatt case, relying on the DOL’s six-factor test, ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and hour laws by failing to compensate interns for their work on the set of “Black Swan.”  Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., No. 11. Civ. 6784 (WHP) (S.D.N.Y. June 11, 2013).  Judge Pauley found that Fox made no effort to educate or train the interns and had them perform routine tasks that would otherwise have been performed by regular employees.

The issue that was presented at the Second Circuit was whether the Court should require employers to satisfy all six of the DOL factors to establish a valid unpaid internship – the approach the plaintiffs’ bar favored.  The defense asked the Court to apply the more flexible “primary beneficiary” test, which looks at all of the facts and determines who benefits most from the internship, the employer or the intern. Those who observed the oral arguments at the Second Circuit reported that several judges were critical of the DOL’s six-factor test, finding it to be overly rigid, and thus seemed to be leaning toward the “primary beneficiary” test, which allows the court to consider the “totality of the circumstance” in deciding whether or not an internship qualified for compensation.

The Decisions 

In keeping with the predictions from oral argument, the Second Circuit rejected the DOL’s six factor test and ruled that the “proper question” to ask in determining whether an intern was an employee is “whether the intern or the employer is the primary beneficiary of the relationship.” It noted that the test had two salient features: what the intern receives in exchange for the work, and the “flexibility to examine the economic reality” of the arrangement. The court instructed that courts would have to “weigh the diverse set of benefits to the intern against an equally diverse set of benefits received by the employer.”
Continue Reading The Unpaid Internship: Who “Really” Benefits from This Arrangement?

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Labor Days co-editor Barbara Hoey was interviewed on Bloomberg Television’s Bloomberg West regarding interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, LLC. Ms. Pao claimed that Kleiner Perkins paid and promoted men more than women and engaged in workplace retaliation by terminating her